Well, back in sodden, grey Seattle after a wonderful visit back home to sodden, grey (and last Saturday cold) New England. Could it be a sign of acclimatization to Seattle that I moan about the 20° F temperature in East Boston when we picked up the rental car? Lord, how delicate we become. On the upside, as Brother Arlo sang - it was a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat and we managed not to bother Officer Obie.
I made the trip to the family homestead in W. Dummerston, VT on Tuesday, it was pouring warm rain on top of a layer of slush and frozen ground, which made for a bit of fog. To fill you all in, my great-great-great grandfather Enos Leonard bought this farm in 1820, after living in nearby Dover, VT for awhile, and we’ve been there ever since (not much longer though, my aunts are selling it – a point they didn’t care to mention during my visit, but that’s a subject for another post). In 1899 my great-grandfather decided that the cows needed a new place to sleep and he needed a better place to work, so he built a new barn. My grandfather was 12 at the time, I’m sorry now that I never asked him what sort of barn was used before this one.
The “new” barn – Built ca 1899
The barn is of particular interest to me because it is a great example of post and beam construction and built on a dry stone foundation. The frame is completely visible, made of timbers of varying size and woods, mostly American Chestnut and White Pine, pinned with Black Locust pegs. It’s also of interest because it’s the place where my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father (during his childhood) went to work every day, and I do mean every day. Funny thing about a herd of cows, they don’t know about calendars and so to them every day is pretty much the same, they need to be fed and milked, only the details changing with the seasons. Those seasons came to an end in 1957, when my grandfather sold off his small herd of Holsteins because of his increasing age and modern regulation of dairies making the running of a herd of about a half-dozen milk cows a losing proposition economically.
The barn has since fallen into disuse and is suffering a bit as the dry foundation settles and the frame moves to accommodate the settling.
Above is the milking parlor, such as it was in the days of pre-industrial dairies, the stanchions are the upright boards on the left of the photo, one of the boards could slide back and forth, effectively keeping the cow from backing up and wandering off. Before you get too concerned about the cow’s feelings, there was always fresh hay where she could lower her head and grab a mouthful from time-to-time, and the stanchions were not kept so tight as to actually contact the cow’s neck, just close enough to keep her horns from passing through.
I mentioned seasonal variation, most of the year the cows were kept out to pasture on the side of the mountain the farm is located on. My grandfather had 120 acres, most of it woodlot, with about 40 acres of hayfield and pasture.
A bit of hayfield above, the cows were also allowed to go up into the woods to forage. Many people don’t realize it, but the domesticated cow, bos taurus, was originally a woodland animal and they still like a walk in the woods when they can get it. I’ll amble into an amusing (well at least it is 65 years after the fact) story regarding that. As a boy, it was my father’s job to walk the cattle to the proper pasturage for the day, and make sure all the gates were closed. Well one day he walked them to the right area, but they were able to get through an open gate to an area that had a lot of wild onions growing in it. A cow likes a varied diet as much as anyone else, so they grazed on the wild onions. Now, onions don’t hurt cows but according to my grandmother the dairy lost a few days milk production waiting for the onion taste to leave the milk. She said the only thing she could do with it was make chowder, as the milk was obviously unsalable. It’s funny now, but on a 1930s-1940s dairy farm, the humor escaped them.
In the winter, the cows stayed in lower part of the barn (above) and had access to a small barnyard, with a watering trough and some room to move around. There was an open floor area for the cows and a couple of stalls for what everyone referred to as “bob-cows”, or oxen. I’ll leave identifying the part of the bull that was bobbed as an exercise for the student. My grandfather had a tractor and a 1927 International dump truck, but the oxen were very useful for working in the woods. Besides, I think he just liked them. Oh, the moss on the wall is a relatively recent addition; back in the day the animals’ body heat was enough to keep the area dry.
The upper part of the barn held the milking parlor and was used as storage for vehicles and machinery; it also had an internal silo for storing corn, all long-since gone. The advantage of the emptying of the barn is that the framing becomes more exposed and details are visible. The barn was built on the three-bay English model, still pretty popular in Northern New England, because it works well in a hilly area. The timbers used to make the frame all came from the farm itself, which is why pine and chestnut predominate. You can see a sample of the framing above, the beams are about 12”x12” and some of the cross beams are up to 40 feet long. The trees were hand-cut, as this was well before the age of the chain-saw, and the beams were then hewn out of logs that were cut to the proper length. The pegs were locust, which is very rot-resistant. In 1972 a small shed attached to the barn needed to be removed. My father and grandfather made the choice to disassemble the shed, rather than demolish it. This meant knocking out he pegs where possible and drilling were it wasn’t. The pegs we were able to knock out still smelled of fresh wood after more than 70 years, I imagine they still would. The cables you see in the photo above were added about 20 years ago to keep the frame from going too out-of-true as the building settled. They seem to have worked.
The barn is sided with chestnut boards, some up to 18” wide. Before the blight, chestnut and Sugar Maple were the common hardwoods in this part of New England. Sugar Maple was, and still is, worth far more standing than as lumber, so chestnut was the choice for siding. It’s hard and has good weather resistant qualities. I’ve included two photos of the siding. The first, above, is an interior shot which shows how the siding looked when it was installed. It's dulled and yellowed a bit by age and oxidation, but still smooth. This siding has stayed dry and out of the sun, so it doesn’t display one of the more interesting effects of weather on siding – erosion.
The last 109 years of weather have been a bit rough on the exterior surface of those nice, clean boards and have changed their color. The soft summer rings have been eroded away, almost an eighth of an inch, while the hard winter rings have resisted the erosion, leaving a surface that could be used to grate carrots – or the fingers of careless little children – that last I’ll personally vouch for.
A little closer look at the erosion of the wood, just for Susan Mitchell, who asked for a close-up.